The Short Range of Ordinance
If you have read pretty much any of my previous articles involving space battles and capital ships, you’ll often notice me citing the relatively short range of ordinance weapons like concussion missiles and proton torpedoes. But I’ve never really talked about why they have such short range and that’s’ because in my own research I really couldn’t find any explanation given in the various source materials. But from my readings and with some knowledge of real world applications I do have some ideas which I thought would make a good article.
But first what do I mean by short range? Well if you own a copy of Haden Blackman’s The New Essential Guide to Weapons and Technology You will notice that the Krupx MG7 Proton Torpedo (one of the most commonly used models) has an optimum range of 200m and a maximum of 600m, where as the Arakyd ST2 Concussion Missiles (Another commonly used model) have an optimum range of 300m and a maximum of 700m. Now those might seem like pretty long distances but take into consideration the scale we are talking about here. An Imperial Star Destroyer is 1600m long, meaning that an X-Wing sitting at the bow of a ISD, based on these values, would not be the bridge of the ISD if it fired a torpedo at it. Now is this true? Well not really, you see generally in this scenario both the ISD and X-Wing would be moving towards each other, so if it could hit the bridge or not would depend on the velocity of each ship, the torpedo and some number crunching. Suffice to saying that on paper no but in practice possibly.
Still though less that a kilometer is not very far in starship combat. So why do these weapons have such a short range? Perhaps it is because of a lack of propellent, or how the missiles get their energy. OR more specifically that the missiles and torpedoes can only carry so much propellent and thus can only go so far. However, I don’t think this is the case, at least for concussion missiles, as they appear to be the same size as air to air missiles used in our own world. However, these missiles often have minimum ranges as long as 1km with maximum ranges of 20+ km. So, it stands to reason that if we in our own world can get long range missiles that can be fired from small craft, why couldn’t they do the same thing in Star Wars? This could however be something that effects proton torpedoes as they seem to be able to carry less propellent than concussion missiles but regardless I think there is something a bit bigger at play.
What I think we are instead seeing is the end result of a protracted arms race between ordinance and various types of countermeasures. You see in order to use these types of weapons you have two options. You can fire them guided or unguided. The former means better accuracy, especially at long ranges and better at hitting moving targets, while being defeated by jamming and other forms of countermeasures depending on the type of guidance system. The latter is fairly immune to those countermeasures but at the cost of lower accuracy, being easier to shoot down and increased difficulty in hitting moving targets. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but the disadvantages in both cases can be mitigated by decreasing the distance to the target. If you fire your ordinance really close to the enemy ship, the jamming fields, ECMs, flak and point defense systems will simply not have enough time to react before the ship will get hit. Likewise, the ship will not have enough time to maneuver out of the way of an unguided shot. This works for both anti capital ship and anti starfighter duties.
Since snubfighters can only carry a small amount of these missiles and torpedoes, they have to make their shots count. Not only that but these weapons are fairly expensive, as the cost of replacing the racks of concussion missiles is why the Empire opted to replace the concussion missile launchers to Ion Cannons on the Victory II class. So, you wouldn’t want your pilots to be wasting shots. So how do you do that, you decrease their maximum range to force the pilots to fire them up close where the chance to hit is the highest. Going back to the propellent issue, since these weapons no longer needed as much fuel, they could be packed with more explosives and thus be even more deadly, or shrunken in order for more to be able to be carried by a single snubfighter.
This of course basically eliminated the use of these weapons on larger warships, as in order to get close enough for the ordinance to be effective they would take a massive beating along the way and suffer heavy damage. And if they just went with long range ordinance they would just be intercepted before they reached the target. Now you may think that eliminating a class of weaponry from large scale capital ship warfare would be a bad thing, but it actually makes the ships more durable. As I’ve discussed previously, holding ordinance is a massive weakness on large ships, as a single turbolaser shot that hits a rack of concussion missiles or proton torpedoes can easily start an internal chain reaction of explosions that can cripple or outright destroy a ship. Having missile launchers and torpedo bays arrayed across your ship buts a multitude of these weak spots all over your ship and thus hinders your survivability. Especially as weapons emplacements are often prime targets in combat the odds of one of these weak spots getting hit is extremely high. By eliminating them to just being used by snubfighters you remove all these weak spots with the obvious exception of your hangar bay, which can be strategically placed where it is unlikely it will get hit. (IE why Star Destroyers have their hangars tucked away on the ventral side of the ship, and why tactics like the Marg Sabl were so popular).
Now regarding the listed maximum ranges indicated in these sourcebooks. Personally, I don’t think they are accurate, or at the very least that the missiles and torpedoes can actually travel much farther than what is listed. I say this because I have never seen anything to suggest that the missiles and torpedoes are designed to detonate at their maximum range, and unlike energy weapons there is no in universe explanation for why it would do less damage after a certain range. Rather what I think is happening here is that the listed maximum range is simply how far the missile or torpedo will travel with its internal propellent. This would mean that after that point it will keep going but will have no change in its velocity. (as inertia is still a thing).
So why list the maximum ranges? Well if my theory is correct then the maximum range is only really a maximum range for a guided attack. When you lock on to the enemy ship and fire your ordinance at it, the ordinance will continue to track it, the propellent making tiny adjustments as the target maneuvers. However, once the propellent is gone the missile or torpedo loses the ability to make those adjustments and will continue flying along the same vector. Again, this is by design in order to disincentivize pilots from wasting shots, as even with target lock firing from longer ranges increases the chance of the enemy defeating that target lock. So, make the ordinance next to useless past the point when the odds of getting a kill are unfavorable. This of course does mean that the unguided range is actually much longer, but without the lock it is unlikely for pilots to even attempt such shots.
So I hope I was able to answer this question that, well I’m pretty sure no one other than myself has ever asked, adequately. Hopefully one day we’ll get something a little more concrete than this for an answer but until Legends continues this is the best we got. Unless one of you can find a legends source that actually answers this question please put it in the comments and I’ll gladly make an update to this article. But as always until next time.
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